Equipment to Record Your Next Speech

Alex S. Brown, PMP IPMA-C

A friend of mine recently asked, “What equipment do you use to record your live speeches? If I wanted to record my speeches, what would you recommend?”

Most speakers I know do not record their live speeches, and the few that do often pay others to make these recordings. Here is a list of items any speaker could purchase and use to make as many better-than-CD-quality recordings without needing to hire someone for each event.

This article is for speakers, not musicians or recording professionals. It was written in March 2008, and will become increasingly dated as time passes. Although this equipment does not change as quickly as computer hardware or consumer electronics, new equipment comes out every few months, and old units are regularly discontinued.

Overview – What It Costs, What You Need

  • My duffel bag of recording equipmentThis duffel bag holds all the equipment I need to record any speech, and weighs about 30 lbs. If I use on-site mics and other equipment, I can get the travel weight down to about 15 lbs.

All-in, you are looking at an investment of anywhere from about $400 to $800 USD to buy everything you need to make great-quality live recordings. There is no limit to how much you can spend, though, and the technology can be overwhelming. It is easy to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on complex, high-quality equipment. Start out small, buy only what you need, and you can always add or upgrade later.

What to buy depends on your goals for the recording and the equipment available at the places you usually perform. You will definitely need a recording device of some kind. Other equipment you might buy includes:

  • One or two microphones
  • Cables
  • Mic stands

Where to Shop

My favorite supplier and on-line ordering resource is Musician’s Friend (http://www.musiciansfriend.com/). Their front-page is full of musical instruments, but go under “Live Sound” and “Recording” and you will find equipment for recording speeches. The best part about working with them is that they will answer any question via e-mail or phone. Even if you are just learning, they are happy to help. I have gotten good advice from them.

They are oriented towards musicians, so they may steer you towards higher-quality recordings than you need for voice. Remind them that you are doing speeches, not music, they can make sure you are buying appropriate equipment.

Most of the speaker-oriented web sites I have found tend to be overpriced and have lower-quality equipment. I recommend shopping where the musicians shop instead.

I also sometimes use amazon.com. They carry a lot of the same equipment through their affiliated electronics shops. I keep coming back to Musician’s Friend, though, because of the great advice, selection, and service.

A Recording Device

What I Use

  • Fostex MR-8HD Recording UnitFostex MR-8HD: The heart of my portable recording studio

For the recording device, I absolutely love the Fostex MR-8HD. It has a built in hard-drive to store the recordings. Plug it in, plug in the mics, hit record, and it starts recording. It handles up to four simultaneous tracks of recording, which is more than I need. You can find other models that only feature two simultaneous tracks (stereo) for less money, and those would be a good buy as well.

I did have a Tascam unit in the past that I was not as happy with. They have been slow to support Microsoft Vista.

Make sure you can transfer the digital recording to your computer. The Fostex unit has a USB port and software to transfer the files.

How Many Tracks?

For most speakers you really only need to record two tracks:

  • Your speaking voice
  • A room mic, for that “live” sound

I like having two extra channels to record a second speaker on their own track, to record an additional room mic, or to record sounds from the computer in a separate track.

Digital recorders are available that record one, two, four, eight, and even up to 24 or more simultaneous tracks. The more tracks they record, the more expensive they are, the larger they are, and the heavier they are. Start simple and upgrade when you need to. I am really happy with four.

A Standalone Recorder or a Computer Interface?

You can also find some good computer-based recording interfaces for less money from companies like M-Audio and Fostex (see the M-Audio Fast Track Pro Mobile, for example). These are much lighter and a little cheaper than standalone units. Their weakness is that you need a laptop to plug into, and you need to use recording software on the laptop to record. I have found occasional computer-based lock-ups, so I prefer something that does not require a computer. Computers are slow to boot up and not as reliable as a dedicated recording device, in my opinion.

Portable Field Recorders Might Be Perfect

You might also want to look at the portable field recorders, from M-Audio, Sony, or Edirol. These usually have built-in mics, and offer the simplest recording. You could just set these on a table and hit “record”. I recommend a unit with two jacks for external mics. “Phantom power” is also a useful feature, and critical for some types of mics. Many will run using a battery, so you do not need to search for an electrical outlet.

Field Recorders are a bit more expensive than standalone multi-track recorders, but they are smaller and lighter too. Here are some models to consider:

Microphones

Strictly speaking, you might not need a mic. If you are speaking somewhere with an amplification system already set up, you can just plug your recorder into the sound board. If you get a field recorder, they will have built-in microphones, and you may not need to buy anything else. You might need your own mics, though.

I have my own mics in case there are none at the place I am recording, or in case I am not allowed to plug into the existing sound board. I also use my own mics to capture the room noise. Mics are potentially the most expensive part of your equipment, so think carefully before buying. A single high-quality mic can be over $1,000 USD, while cheap ones can be $10 or less.

There are a few types of mics that are especially important for speakers:

  • Omnidirectional
  • Cardioid or directional
  • Wireless (especially lavaliere or clip-on)

Omnidirectional Mics

  • Two mics - A Directional Shure SM48 and an Omnidirectional Audio-Technica AT3032A Shure SM48 (top) and an Audio-Technica AT3032 (bottom)

Omnidirectional (omni) mics are good for capturing crowd noise. If you have one of these, you can record the general sound of the room. “Omnidirectional” means that it picks up sound in every direction. It is good for capturing soft echoes of your voice as they bounce off the walls, as well as laughter, claps, and other audience reactions. I always use mine, because it helps the recording sound more “live” and “real”. Unfortunately the speaker’s voice can get drowned out by crowd noises, because these mics pick up everything.

Here are two models to look at:

Directional Mics

Cardioid or directional mics are great for picking up just your voice and nothing else. They just record what is directly in front of the mic, and they block out everything else. Experiment with these mics and you will be amazed at how well they block out background noise. That can be good and bad. They will give a very clean recording of your voice, but without any of the echoes or crowd reactions that make the final recording sound “live”.

In a live situation, I point one omni mic towards the crowd and a directional mic towards my voice. Afterwards, I mix the two signals together for a natural result that is clear and easy to understand.

Sure makes many great, cheap, cardioid mics. The Shure SM58 or SM48 are both great if you want a hand-held, wired mic. I have a SM48, and I use it when doing a recording in my office. It is great for recording voice-overs, and it captures a rich sound.

Wireless Lavaliere (Clip-On) Mics

  • Wireless Lavaliere Mic in Its CaseWireless Lavaliere Mic

For many speaking situations, you want a wireless clip-on mic (lavaliere). These units will run a few hundred dollars if they are good. Audio-Technica has some as low as $150, but many will be $300 or more. I own one but rarely use it. Most presentation halls where I speak has either a wired or wireless lavaliere mic, to amplify my voice so everyone can hear. I plug into the sound board to get the signal.

Having one of these will ensure you can get a recording in any situation. Even if you are not allowed to touch the sound board where you speak, you can plug in your own wireless mic and route it to your own recording equipment.

If you are buying sound equipment for the first time, I do not recommend, the wireless lavaliere mic. If you want maximum flexibility, or if there is no sound equipment where you normally speak, this purchase might be very useful.

Wired lavaliere mics are also available, for situations where you want your hands free, but where you do not plan to walk around, such as a seated interview or speech. A wired lavaliere is less expensive than a wireless one, and it is easier to set up.

Phantom Power? Dynamic? Condenser?

You may see the terms “dynamic” or “condenser” used to describe a particular mic. If you want to know the details, there are articles available to explain the technical differences, but there is one important practical difference:

Condenser mics need power. Dynamic mics do not.

If you buy condenser mics, your recording equipment needs to provide power to it, usually something called “phantom power”. Make sure you buy recording equipment and cables that can power your condenser mics. If you are unsure, ask the salespeople. If they sell you the wrong stuff, return it.

Cables

  • Recording cables
    Cables, plugs, and adaptersCables and adapters for my equipment. I carry XLR, 1/4″, and RCA cables. With a few adapters, I can pug into a wide variety of audio equipment, including computers. I always bring a spare power strip, too.

You need cables to connect your mics to your recorder, and the sound board to your recorder. I bought a variety of long-length cables to match my mics. Once you pick out the mics and equipment you need, call up Musician’s Friend. They can tell you the cables and adapters you need. Most mics use an XLR connector, and most recorders have them built in. You might need a 1/4″ to XLR connector if you get a portable device with only 1/4″ jacks. You also may need a 1/4″ stereo adapter that gives you two 1/4″ mono plugs.

For plugging into the sound boards at most speaking situations, you need either RCA jacks, 1/4″ jacks, or both. If possible, use the 1/4″ jack, because it is more secure. The RCA jacks look like the ones on your TV or stereo. You may want a RCA-to-1/4″ adapter, so you can mix-and-match the same cables, and plug them into whatever jacks are available.

Plugging Your Equipment into Someone Else’s Board

Use common courtesy when you are planning to speak and when you are at an event. Try to contact the people who are setting up the sound equipment ahead of time. If they are on-site, ask their help before plugging into their equipment. I have never had anyone refuse, and most people are happy to help. Audio people like meeting and talking to people who appreciate good sound. Most speakers do not understand anything about what they do, and many speakers ignore the audio people completely. Be polite and respectful, and they will often help enthusiastically.

Do not change any sliders or knobs. You can mess up the amplification settings for the room. Plug in and leave everything else alone.

Also, bring your own cables. Many people are happy to provide one if you forget, but it is unprofessional to expect them to provide adapters or cables.

Look for jacks labeled “tape out,” “stereo out”, “master out” or just “out” on the board. Plug in, usually with a 1/4″ plug or with an RCA plug if no 1/4″ are available. The more recordings you do, the easier it will be to find the right jack. Do a quick sound check with their microphones and make sure the sound is going through to the recording device.

Mic Stands

If you decide to use an omnidirectional mic to pick up the crowd, you want a mic stand. Of course, you might be able to borrow one from the sound crew, but it is much more polite to bring one with you. You also can just put the mic on a chair or table, but it may roll off and fall, and any taps on the chair or table will make a loud sound on the recording. A mic stand helps avoid all that.

  • Clip-On Stand Attaches Microphone to a Small TreeA clip-on mic stand can attach your mic to anything solid

I love this cheap, portable mic stand that you can mount onto just about anything: On-Stage Stands MSA-9508 Posi-Lok Side Mount Boom. You can clip it onto a chair, table, or anything else you find that is solid in the room. It is much lighter than anything else available, and you can pack it easily. Most typical mic stands (even the folding ones), have at least one four-foot section, making them hard to pack and carry. I have one small tripod/boom stand that I bring when I am driving somewhere, but the side-mount one is the one I use all the time; I even pack it in my luggage when I fly. I have always used cheap, light mic stands. The more expensive, heavier ones will isolate your mic from any bumps and vibrations better, but for me weight is much more important than sound quality. If you were building a studio or with a tour band, you would get the heavier stuff.

At the Event

I usually set up at least 15 minutes before-hand. I find an electrical outlet, plug in my equipment, run my cables, set up my mics, and quickly check that everything is connected.

Setting recording levels is really critical, and read your recording equipment’s manual about how to do it. For a live recording, aim for levels that are too low, NEVER too high. If your levels are too low your quality is a little bit lower, but you can always increase the levels later. If your recording levels are too high, though, you start to “clip” the recording, and there is no way to fix that completely. Your voice will sound unnatural and possibly noisy, depending on how bad the clipping is.

A Polished, Final Recording

Unfortunately the work is not 100% done when you are done speaking. First and foremost, you have to make sure you remembered to hit “record”. (I have forgotten to do that more times than I can count. Now I usually hit record several minutes before I start speaking, and just edit out the silence later.) Then you need to use some sort of software to edit out the extra stuff at the beginning and end, as well as mix the sound properly. Usually the levels are not 100% perfect, and you need to increase the volume or “compress” the sound. I use software called Audacity (free, open-source) to edit my sound. Most recording equipment comes with some sort of sound-editing software. Try it out and see what you prefer.

You can go crazy with your recording, filtering noise, removing “ums” and “ahs”, even reordering your whole presentation. You can re-record parts of your presentation and insert them into the “live” recording, if you made mistakes. All this editing takes a tremendous amount of time, though. I usually just fix the overall recording levels, mix in enough of the omni mic so that you can hear crowd reactions clearly, and other minor edits. I like to leave my recordings as close to “live” as possible.

It is reassuring to know that you can digitally fix almost any problem in a recording, including background hum, excessive crowd noise, a heckler, or other problems. If you re-record sections and mix in real room noise from the event, almost no one will be able to tell that you doctored the recording. Some things are almost impossible to do, including removing background music, removing very high levels of noise, or fixing “clipping” where the levels were set too high. Be sure not to waste time fixing minor problems, and consider hiring someone to professionally mix the recording if many edits are needed.

Listeners are very patient with minor flaws in live recordings. If you are doing a recording in a sterile, studio environment, you will want to edit more aggressively.

Beware that if anyone bumps into your mics during the recording, it will create a huge “pop” or low-frequency rumble in the recording. You need to either clip those out or use a high-pass filter to remove the rumble. I also usually do a high-pass filter around 100 Hz for the whole recording, to remove any low-frequency hum that might have been in the room. The human voice does not really resonate below 500 Hz, so that is a very safe filter to run.

Overview

With an investment of about $400 to $800 USD, you can purchase all the equipment you need to make great-quality recordings. You can get a great, better-than-CD-quality recording using these techniques.

Practice with your new equipment before your real, live date. I give sample speeches in my living room and backyard whenever I get new equipment, just to see how it works.

Beware of spending too much time and money. There is no limit to what you could spend. A single high-quality mic can cost $1,000 USD or more. You could spend thousands on a live-recording set-up that includes eight-track recording, two high-quality mics for crowd noise, several wireless mics to record a panel discussion, several wired mics, many stands, and miles of cabling. Some speakers have their own sound boards, amplifiers, and speakers. It is easy to spend money once you get started.

Figure out what you really need and what you will use. Start small and see if you enjoy making your own recordings. If you do not like the work of doing the recording, you can always pay someone else to make a recording for you. The sound crew will almost always offer that service, and you can hire someone to edit and mix the final recording, too.

Then there is the question of what to do with this recording, but that is another article. You can burn CDs, DVDs, create on-line presentations, create podcasts, or offer on-line training through these recordings. If you want to record video of your speeches, these high-quality audio recordings will help you produce a polished, professional video.